Bioplastics are plastics that are produced from biological sources like corn or sugar cane instead of fossil fuels.
It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of plastic are currently produced by life science labs each year. That’s about the same weight as the great pyramid at Giza, or 7 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco!
Currently, the production of bioplastics only uses up around 0.02% of all the available agricultural area globally. For comparison, pastures used for grazing animals take up around 67% of global agricultural area! At Grain-4-Lab, however, we avoid this problem entirely. That is because we produce our plastic using waste products, which means no additional land is required to grow our feedstock.
Currently, 99% of plastics are made using fossil fuels. Given the severity of the climate crisis, this is obviously unsustainable. In addition, plastic waste often finds its way into marine environments, where it wreaks havoc on wildlife and ends up getting into the human food chain.
Recent evidence suggests that we eat about 5 grams of plastic each week! That’s the same weight as a credit card each week. That’s more than a hamster worth of plastic every year. While the health effects are not yet well known, it seems highly likely that the presence of so much plastic in our bodies is having a serious impact on human health.
Currently bioplastics are compostable but not biodegradable. There are also some temperature limitations which can be an issue in the laboratory. In addition, some bioplastics can not stand up to the same levels of acidity as other materials.
Scientists often have very specific requirements when it comes to what they need their plastics to do. For example, biologists often need their equipment to be sterile. If you are trying to study one particular microbe, you can’t have loads of others popping up in your experiment! Other requirements include resistance to heat and acids, resistance to pressure and breakage, compatibility with living organisms, price, transparency, and availability.
In this context, ‘compostable’ means that the plastic can be broken down in an industrial composting facility. The plastic is not biodegradable, meaning that it will not break down in the natural environment like other organic materials. EU regulation EN13432 requires compostable packaging to disintegrate after 12 weeks in a composting facility. These facilities expose the material to high temperatures which allows microbes to reproduce and break down the material into its constituent parts.